In Drought-Ridden California, the Classic Lawn Loses Ground
SAN DIEGO — Just a year ago, the Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club — which bills itself as having an “exquisitely manicured, visually breathtaking” golf course — featured the same traditional rolling hills of grass found at golf clubs around the country.
But then came the $4 million renovation. With shovels and bulldozers, out went 54 acres of turf, nearly half the lawn on the course. Walkways that were once grass were replaced with shredded redwood bark, known here as “gorilla hair” for its coarse appearance and the way it feels underfoot. Large stretches of fairway are now covered in decomposed granite, which Kevin Hwang, the general manager of the club, calls a “fancy term for dirt.”
“It’s still not as pretty as I thought it would be,” Mr. Hwang confessed as he drove his cart through the course, a semipublic one that lets nonmembers play. With less grass on which to land a ball, the course has become somewhat more challenging, too.
Still, the club did not have to spend a penny: The local water district paid for the entire thing. It used a fund — now empty — from the larger Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that offered rebates to homeowners and others to rip out water-guzzling grass and replace it with drought-friendly alternatives.
The cash-for-grass program has existed for years in Southern California, but it reached a pinnacle this year, as the drought intensified and local water districts increased the size of the rebates, sometimes to as much as $4 a square foot. The Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to most of urban Southern California, has spent more than $450 million on rebates in the last two years — including the $4 million for Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club.
But the costly initiatives are not simply about conservation. In some ways, the program is an attempt to change the state’s outdoor aesthetic, shifting it away from the green lawns that for generations have been an emblem of the California dream — not only for residents but also for people who grew up watching shows like “The Brady Bunch” and “Melrose Place” and considered a perfect yard to be a Southern California birthright.
“I think people will look back at this time period and say this was the moment when we started a trend,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, predicting that interest in lawn replacement will continue even if the rebates do not. After all, water is more expensive now, and there are fines for using too much.
Mr. Kightlinger thought that the additional $350 million allocated to the rebate program in the region for this year would last through December. Instead, it was claimed in months. At one point, the district was paying out $15 million in rebates each week.
“I don’t think anyone, anywhere, has spent this kind of money on consumer rebates, and we certainly won’t be able to sustain it going forward,” Mr. Kightlinger said. “It’s like anything else: You start here, and then eventually it becomes something you don’t have to pay for.”
The state’s Department of Water Resources has begun its own, albeit much smaller, program to fund similar rebates in other regions. The California 2015 Turf Replacement Initiative, which went into effect on April 1, called for the removal of 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf. Just a quarter of the $22 million allocated for rebates in the rest of the state has been claimed so far, perhaps a sign of persistent resistance to ripping out grass.
“There is something to be said for being able to lie down in your own lawn,” said Annette Gutierrez, an owner of Potted, a garden décor store in Los Angeles. Her business has spiked as more Californians — who have been instructed to cut back water use by 25 percent — look for alternatives to grass. Ms. Gutierrez has spent hours with customers to help them imagine the look of a new outdoor space, picturing huge fire pits, pots of moss and complicated mosaics of succulents.
“It’s not a choice between absolutes, either a lawn or just a cactus and a ponderosa feel,” said Ms. Gutierrez, who recently replaced her yard’s grass with artificial turf.
Still, despite selling others on succulents as large as a pumpkin, Ms. Gutierrez wrote in Sunset magazine about her own ambivalence when getting rid of what little lawn she had left.
“There are certain things you’re not going to get without grass,” she said. “To have no green at all is just sad. It is calming, and having it there, seeing my dogs roll around, makes me relaxed.”
Many front lawns now feature undulating feather grass and pots filled with spiny succulents, neither of which need much water. Museums, parks and outdoor shopping malls have changed what goes inside planters and other decorative areas. But public utilities have largely stopped subsidizing such projects, and whether widespread change will endure remains unclear.
At Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, “there’s no way we could have or would have done this on our own,” Mr. Hwang, the general manager, said. “People say, ‘You’ve ruined a perfectly good golf course,’ and I say, ‘Would you rather have no golf course?’ ”
The club, he added, is lucky to have made its renovations before the rebates ran out. “What we had just wasn’t sustainable, from a purely financial perspective,” Mr. Hwang said. “Water costs too much now to work the way we always had.” (In his own yard, he replaced grass with artificial turf.)
Large rebates like the one paid to Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club generated angry headlines, as people criticized the water districts for subsidizing wealthy businesses and residents. But now that the cash has dried up and El Niño is expected to bring drenching rains for California’s winter, it is possible that interest in lawn replacement will wane and that the green grass signifying the good life here will return to favor.
Beyond the rebates, changing the fundamental landscape of the region will happen only when consumers’ tastes begin to change, said Stephanie Pincetl, the director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“What we’re really talking about is hundreds of thousands of acres, and it’s unrealistic to think or even hope that it will change in one drought,” Ms. Pincetl said. “We need the wholesale nurseries to be producing a whole range of plants, the retailers to sell those plants, and big-box stores to train their staff to actually know what to do with them, and the gardeners that work every day to now how to take care of them.”
For now, succulents are the it plant in Los Angeles, said Lili Singer, director of adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, a nonprofit group dedicated to California flora. Her “Look, Ma, No Lawn!” classes on landscaping have packed libraries and community centers.
“I’ve been in nurseries my whole life, and we’ve never had a time like this,” Ms. Singer said. “It’s like finally people are getting it, that we really live in an arid climate and we can’t just import the East Coast feeling here.”
Read more at nytimes.com